Proximities on Scale and the Art + Environment Triennial in Reno

by Eric Magrane

Thinking art & environment is thinking about and across scale.

The art-environment conversations we have and the work we create here at the University of Arizona and in Tucson interact strongly with both regional and international discussions on the role of creative practice and art in addressing environmental issues. This was clearly apparent at last month's Art & Environment triennial conference at the Nevada Museum of Art (A+E conference), which offered an exhibit and such a variety of presentations that I can only highlight a small sampling here. (Back in spring of this year, William L. Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment, visited the UA. See the conversation I had with him in Proximities.)

One of the themes of the A+E conference focused on the animal. Curator Joanne Northrup writes of the concurrent exhibit, Late Harvest: “We are both human and human animal; we love that which we kill; we are imbued with godlike impulses to create, and also subject to the laws of Mother Nature; the world was made for us, and the world was made by us.” Provocative installations incorporating taxidermy used in art—for example, the exhibit includes a tattooed and taxidermied pig from artist Wim Delvoye that pushes uncomfortable questions about ethics —are mixed with classic wildlife paintings.

While in Reno, I was reading Zoologies, a new book by the UA’s Alison Deming, who also attended the conference.  The book’s care for the world is unflinching. The essay, “The Sacred Pig,” for example, recounts how pigs were used as subjects in the 1950s Nevada Bomb Tests to research the efficacy of different protective jackets against the nuclear bomb or “were placed in pens behind large sheets of glass to test the effect of flying debris on living targets.” Art can help us take a hard look at how humans have organized the world and our relationships to animals.

Here we might think about scale not solely in relation to geographic or spatial proximity but also to the scale of the human relation to non-human animals or other species. While art can help us to take that hard look, it also opens up a space for play, and for care. This is evidenced by a number of current and recent projects at the UA and in the Tucson community that address animals or other nonhumans in a playful and exploratory way—see, for just a few examples, a documentary on animal and human play by UA associate professor and filmmaker Yuri Makino, or local Lumie Award  winner Kimi Eisele’s duet with a saguaro, or the ongoing collaborative art-science-design work of UA art professor Ellen McMahon.

In Tucson, of course, we’re nested within the Sonoran Desert bioregion, which is nested within the greater Intermountain West. How do our understandings of these different geographic layers—not to mention geopolitical lines—structure the way we approach environmental issues?

While some of these questions are best left for sciences like biogeography, they’re also questions for artists who are thinking at watershed and bioregional scales. For example, Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio’s project Rose, Coalition of Watersheds, encompasses the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the Great Basin, with a goal to “protect the well-being of the four adjacent watersheds.” An imaginative project, the Rose C.O.W. is currently accepting applications for citizenship. You can submit an application on the project’s website.

Bon presented at the A+E conference along with Helen and Newton Harrison, pioneers of eco-art who have long thought about art bioregionally. They spoke of their ongoing project to blend art, science, planning, and policy, designing “species palettes” that can—they hope—be used in future years to revegetate areas around the world that are projected to be affected by climate change.

The Harrisons spoke at the UA’s Center for Creative Photography in 2012. In a paper published in a special issue of the Geographical Review, UA associate researcher Mrill Ingram noted  “the depth of their aesthetically driven commitment to innovative inspired solutions to environmental and social problems through proposals grounded in ecology, climate change, complexity, and other sciences and the arts.”

For another take on how we approach scale in addressing environmental issues, see the work of photographer Jamey Stillings, who was also at the A+E conference. Stillings’ aerial photographs of the Ivanpah Solar installation in the Mojave Desert—the world’s largest such plant—are featured in an exhibit at Tucson’s Etherton Gallery. Projects like this “raise challenging questions about land and resource use, exposing differing perspectives and contradictions within the environmental movement, local communities, the energy industry and general public,” he writes. 

The broad range of art-environment conversations that are bubbling up across the UA campus, across Tucson, across the region, and across the globe—as reflected in events such as the A+E conference, or in IE's Art Environment Network lunch that featured 5-minute micro-presentations by a variety of artists, scientists, and scholars working on art-environment just last Friday—are  reflective of a growing understanding of the role that imagination, creative practice, art, and play have in both communicating environmental issues and envisioning the future.

In other words, thinking art-environment, as well as thinking across scale, may be an adaptation strategy.


Photo credits:

Kimi Eisele, from How to Duet with a Saguaro, Oct. 2014
Jamey Stillings, #8796, 27 October 2012 (Detailed aerial view of power block tower and heliostats for Solar Field One during construction) from The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar